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I added these words to the sidebar of my blog, and I like them so much that I’m sharing them as a blog post itself.

Please seek wisdom from research-to-practice experts — the dedicated professionals who spend time in two worlds to bring the learning field insights based on science. These folks are my heroes, given their often quixotic efforts to navigate through an incomprehensible jungle of business and research obstacles.

These research-to-practice professionals should be your heroes as well. Not mythological heroes, not heroes etched into the walls of faraway mountains. These heroes should be sought out as our partners, our fellow travelers in learning, as people we hire as trusted advisors to bring us fresh research-based insights.

The business case is clear. Research-to-practice experts not only enlighten and challenge us with ideas we might not have considered — ideas that make our learning efforts more effective in producing business results — research-to-practice professionals also prevent us from engaging in wasted efforts, saving our organizations time and money, all the while enabling us to focus more productively on learning factors that actually matter.

Today, industry luminary and social-media advocate Jane Hart wrote an incendiary blog post claiming that “the world of L&D [Learning and Development] is splitting in two.” According to Jane there are good guys and bad guys.

The bad guys are the “Traditionalists.” Here is some of what Jane says about them:

  • They cling onto 20th century views of Training & Development.”
  • They believe they know what is best for their people.”
  • They disregard the fact that most people are bored to tears sitting in a classroom or studying an e-learning course at their desktop.”
  • They miss the big picture – the fact that learning is much more than courses, but involves continuously acquiring new knowledge and skills as part of everyday work.”
  • They don’t understand that the world has changed.”

Fighting words? Yes! Insulting words? Yes! Painting with too broad a brush? Yes! Maybe just to make a point? Probably!

Still, Jane’s message is clear. Traditionalists are incompetent fools who must be eradicated because of the evil they are doing.

Fortunately, galloping in on white horses we have “Modern Workplace Learning (MWL) practitioners.” These enlightened souls are doing the following, according to Jane:

  • “They are rejecting the creation of expensive, sophisticated e-learning content and preferring to build short, flexible, modern resources (where required) that people can access when they need them. AND they are also encouraging social content (or employee-generated content) – particularly social video – because they know that people know best what works for them.”
  • They are ditching their LMS (or perhaps just hanging on to it to manage some regulatory training) – because they recognise it is a white elephant – and it doesn’t help them understand the only valid indicator of learning success, how performance has changed and improved.”
  • They are moving to a performance-driven world – helping groups find their own solutions to problems – ones that they really need, will value, and actually use, and recognise that these solutions are often ones they organise and manage themselves.”
  • They are working with managers to help them develop their people on the ground – and see the success of these initiatives in terms of impact on job performance.”
  • They are helping individuals take responsibility for their own learning and personal development – so that they continuously grow and improve, and hence become valuable employees in the workplace.”
  • They are supporting teams as they work together using enterprise social platforms – in order to underpin the natural sharing within the group, and improve team learning.” 

Points of Agreement

I agree with Jane in a number of ways. Many of the practices we use in workplace learning are ineffective.

Here are some points of agreement:

  1. Too much of our training is ineffective!
  2. Too often training and/or elearning are seen as the only answer!
  3. Too often we don’t think of how we, as learning professionals, can leverage on the job learning.
  4. Too often we default to solutions that try to support performance primarily by helping people learn — when performance assistance would be preferable.
  5. Too often we believe that we have to promote an approved organizational knowledge, when we might be better off to let our fellow workers develop and share their own knowledge.
  6. Too often we don’t utilize new technologies in an effort to provide more effective learning experiences.
  7. Too often we don’t leverage managers to support on-the-job learning.
  8. Too often we don’t focus on how to improve performance.

Impassioned Disagreement

As someone who has enjoyed the stage with Jane in the past, and who knows that she’s an incredibly lovely person, I doubt that she means to cast aspersions on a whole cohort of dedicated learning-and-performance professionals.

Where I get knocked off my saddle is the oversimplifications encouraged in the long-running debate between the traditionalist black hats and the informal-learning-through-social-media white hats! Pitting these groups against each other is besides the point!

I remember not too long ago when it was claimed that “training is dead,” that “training departments will disappear,” that “all learning is social,” that “social-media is the answer,” etc…

What is often forgotten is that the only thing that really matters is the human cognitive architecture. If our learning events and workplace situations don’t align with that architecture, learning will suffer.

Oversimplifications that Hurt the Learning Field

  1. Learners know how they learn best so we should let them figure it out.
    Learners, as research shows, often do NOT know how they learn best, so it may be counterproductive not to figure out ways to support them in learning.
  2. Learning can be shortened because all learners need to do is look it up.
    Sometimes learners have a known learning need that can be solved with a quick burst of information. BUT NOT ALL LEARNING is like this! Much of learning requires a deeper, longer experience. Much of learning requires more practice, more practical experience, etc. Because of these needs, much of learning requires support from honest-to-goodness learning professionals.
  3. All training and elearning is boring!
    Really? This is obviously NOT true, even if much of it could be lots better.
  4. That people can always be trusted to create their own content!
    This is sometimes true and sometimes not. Indeed, sometimes people get stuff wrong (sometimes dangerously wrong). Sometimes experts actually have expertise that us normal people don’t have.
  5. That using some sort of enterprise social platform is always effective, or is always more effective, or is easy to use to create successful learning.
    Really? Haven’t you heard more than one or two horror stories — or failed efforts? Wiki’s that weren’t populated. Blogs that fizzled. SharePoint sites that were isolated from users who could use the information. Forums where less than 1% of folks are involved. Et cetera… And let’s not forget, these social-learning platforms tend to be much better at just-in-time learning than in long-term deeper learning (not totally, but usually).
  6. That on-the-job learning is easy to leverage.
    Let’s face it, formal training is MUCH EASIER to leverage than on-the-job learning. On-the-job learning is messy and hard to reach. It’s also hard to understand all the forces involved in on-the-job learning. And what’s ironic is that there is already a group that is in a position to influence on-the-job learning. The technical term is “managers.”
  7. Crowds of people always have more wisdom than single individuals.
    This may be one of the stupidest memes floating around our field right now. Sounds sexy. Sounds right. But not when you look into the world around us. I might suggest recent presidential candidate debates here in the United States as evidence. Clearly, the smartest ideas don’t always rise to prominence!
  8. Traditional learning professionals have nothing of value to offer.
    Since I’m on the front lines in stating that our field is under-professionalized, I probably am the last one who should be critiquing this critique, but it strikes me as a gross simplification — if not grossly unfair. Human learning is exponentially more complex than rocket science, so none of us have a monopoly on learning wisdom. I’m a big proponent of research-based and evidence-based practice, and yet neither research nor other forms of evidence are always omniscient. Almost every time I teach, talk to clients, read a book, read a research article, or read the newspaper, I learn more about learning. I’ve learned a ton from traditional learning professionals. I’ve also learned a ton from social-learning advocates.

 

Summary

In today’s world, there are simply too many echo-chambers — places which are comfortable, which reinforce our preconceptions, which encourage us to demonize and close off avenues to our own improvement.

We in the learning field need to leave echo-chambers to our political brethren where they will do less damage (Ha!). We have to test our assumptions, utilize the research, and develop effective evaluation tools to really test the success of our learning interventions. We have to be open, but not too-easily hoodwinked by claims and shared perceptions.

Hail to the traditionalists and the social-learning evangelists!

 

Follow-up!

Clark Quinn wrote an excellent blog post to reconcile the visions promoted by Jane and Will.

 

Share!

If you want to share this discussion with others, here are the links:

  • Jane’s Provocative Blog Post:
    • http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/blog/2015/11/12/the-ld-world-is-splitting-in-two/
  • Will’s Spirited Critique:
    • http://www.willatworklearning.com/2015/11/the-two-world-theory-of-workplace-learning-critiqued.html
  • Clark’s Reconciliation:
    • http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=4655#comment-821615

 

 

To view this as a PDF, click here.

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To improve, we must know our biggest failings.

In the training and development field, our five biggest failures are as follows:

  1. We forget to minimize forgetting and improve remembering.
  2. We don’t provide training follow-through.
  3. We don’t fully utilize the power of prompting mechanisms.
  4. We don’t fully leverage on-the-job learning.
  5. We measure so poorly that we don’t get good feedback to enable improvement.

1. Minimizing Forgetting, Improving Remembering

It is not enough to help people understand new concepts or even to motivate them to utilize those concepts. If they don’t remember concepts when they encounter situations in which those concepts would be useful, then previous understanding and motivation is for naught.

There are three powerful mechanisms that support long-term remembering, (a) aligning the learning and performance contexts, (b) providing retrieval practice, and (c) utilizing spaced repetitions. Most of our learning interventions do a poor job of providing these mechanisms—resulting in training that may create awareness but doesn’t support remembering or performance improvement.

We need to give our learners more realistic practice using scenarios and simulations. We also need to space repetitions of learning over time—much more than we do now. Instead of trying to teach everything at a basic awareness level, we need to cover less content—but not just present it—instead giving our learners opportunities for deliberate practice.

2. Training Follow-Through

Providing training but no effort to ensure that learners will apply what they’ve learned is the height of professional malpractice. If we assume that learners remember what they’ve learned (which as we just saw is not a given), learners still must (a) remain motivated to apply what they’ve learned, (b) feel that there is some benefit to applying the learning, (c) have the resources and time to put their learning into practice, (d) get feedback and guidance to improve their performance, and (e) be prepared to overcome obstacles and frustrations in applying the learning.

Note how the first two failures create an additive effect—both significantly lessen the likelihood of on-the-job application of the learning. If learners don’t remember, they’re not going to apply what they’ve learned. If learners don’t receive after-training follow-through support, they are unlikely to provide the continuous and persistent focus needed to apply the learning in a way that creates sustainable success.

To reach a credible level of training follow-through we need to (a) engage our learners managers to enlist their support, (b) provide reminders to apply the learning, (c) provide relearning opportunities for that which has been forgotten, (d) enable additional learning to improve and elaborate on the performance, (e) ensure our learners have the resources and time they need to apply the learning and integrate it into their behavioral repertoire, (f) provide coaching support to guide the learning-and-performance process, (g) ensure the learners are incentivized either tangibly with money or perks or intrinsically by aligning efforts with personal values and sense-of-identity, and (h) encourage persistence even in the face of obstacles and frustration.

3. Prompting Mechanisms

Prompting mechanisms rely on one particularly powerful foible of the human cognitive architecture—that our working memories are triggered easily by environmental stimuli. Prompting mechanisms include things like job aids, performance support tools, signage, intuitive cues in our tools and equipment, and some forms of management oversight. They work because they prompt certain strands of thinking, and thus performance. For example, a job aid that lists 5 key interview goals, 10 key interview questions and their rationales automatically triggers in the interviewer a certain way of thinking about interviewing. For example, an interview template might remind its user that interviews are more telling if interviewees are asked to perform a work task or describe how they would perform a work task. Without such a prompt, the interviewer might focus only on how well they think the person would fit into the work culture, etc.

While we are aware of these prompting mechanisms, we are not aggressive enough in their use. If we utilized prompting mechanisms more often with our training and more often as a replacement for training, we’d create better outcomes. If we went looking for grassroots prompting mechanisms already being used and helped spread their use, we’d be more effective. If we evaluated learning facilitators on their use of prompting mechanisms, we’d be more likely to encourage the use of prompting mechanisms. If we asked learners in training to practice with prompting mechanisms, we’d see more being used on the job—and our learners would remember more of what they learned.

4. On-the-Job Learning

We as learning professionals tend to focus almost exclusively on the creation and delivery of training interventions even when we know that our learners are doing a great deal of their learning on the job without any training. Employees learn through trial-and-practice, getting help from others, through social media, by reading task instructions, by using help systems, and so forth. While we have much less direct influence on on-the-job learning than on training, we do have some influence and we ought to use it if we are serious about getting results.

Often the biggest impact we can have is by accessing managers and encouraging them to actively promote learning. Managers can improve learning in their direct reports by (a) making it a point to monitor their employees’ competencies and guide them toward learning opportunities, (b) being approachable and available for questions and advice, (c) creating a culture of learning and information sharing, (d) encouraging data-driven decision-making instead of opinion-driven decision-making, (e) utilizing an experimental mindset, for example by encourage pilot-testing and rapid prototyping, and (f) giving direct reports time for learning and exploration.

We can also have an influence on on-the-job learning by creating and maintaining social-media mechanisms that can be tailored to particular needs. For example, wikis can be used by project teams to get input from various parties and blogs can be used by senior folks to lay out a compelling vision.
We can encourage better on-the-job learning by improving people’s ability to coach their fellow employees. Too often people asked to coach others do a poor job because they just don’t know what good coaching looks like.

We can utilize diagnostic tools to help people in the organization see things about themselves—or about the organization—that they might not otherwise see. For example, if the organization engages in an effort to improve coaching ability, those being coached can be asked to take a short diagnostic survey on how well their coach is doing in coaching them. If an organization wants to change its culture to one that is more flexible and creative, we can utilize a diagnostic to track progress. We can also use a diagnostic to get the organization talking about specifics—so that employees know what behaviors represent the past culture and which represent the new culture.

There are, of course, other things we can do to directly influence on-the-job learning. In addition, we can change our brand by stopping our tendency to be order takers for training. By changing the way we define our role, we can encourage the business side to be fuller partners in organizational learning.

5. Measurement and Feedback to Spur Improvement

We as learning professionals suck at measurement, creating a vacuum of information that pushes us to make poor decision after poor decision in our learning designs. By only seeking learner opinions about the learning, we encourage a bias toward entertainment and engagement and away from content validity, remembering, and application. By measuring only when the learners are in the training context, we don’t learn whether the learning intervention would generate remembering in a work context that is not like the training situation. By measuring only during the learning event, we measure the learning intervention’s ability to create understanding, but we do not measure the learning intervention’s ability to support long-term remembering. We also fail to examine whether any training follow-through is utilized. By utilizing only low-level questions in our tests of learning, we fail to measure the ability of our learners to make decisions that relate to workplace performance. In short, we don’t get the feedback we need to make good learning decisions.

Maintaining ourselves in a state of permanent darkness, we continue to make terrible decisions in regard to learning design, development, and deployment. We design primarily for engagement and understanding, while ignoring remembering, motivation, and application. We hire and promote trainers and training companies who get great ratings but who don’t help learners remember or apply what they’ve learned. Because our measurement is focused only on training, we fail to engage our business partners to ensure that they are adequately supporting learning application—we also never learn what obstacles and leverage points face our learners when they go to apply the learning in their jobs. We build e-learning programs that encourage learners to focus on low-level trivia instead of focusing on the main points. By abstaining from diagnostics, we leave employees blind to conditions from which they might benefit. Poor measurement enables the first four failures.

The bottom line on measurement is that measurement should provide us with valid feedback. Unfortunately, because we haven’t taken the human learning system into account in our measurement designs—and in our measurement models—we are getting biased information and drawing inappropriate conclusions from poor data.

The Five Failures are Fixable

We as learning professionals—as a whole—though working honorably and with good intentions, are too often failing to maximize our impact. Our job is work-performance improvement. We can start by improving our own work performance.

But instead of focusing on everything—which will certainly overwhelm us—we should focus on the things that really matter. We should focus on our five failures. Instead of following willy-nilly prescriptions that pop like fads from a popcorn popper—we should focus on five things that are fundamental—and inspired by the learning research. We should focus on the five failures.

In this brief article, I have provided strong hints about how to rethink and redirect each of the five failures. While such a brief synopsis is certainly not sufficient to enable you to completely redesign your learning efforts, it should, I hope, motivate you to get started.

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To view this as a PDF, click here.

 

Are you an independent consultant or contractor in the workplace learning-and-performance field?

Worried about the economy or energized by it?

There is a lot of anecdotal worry that the economy is hitting the training-and-development field hard, perhaps especially so for independent consultants and contractors.

I decided we ought to gather our own data to see what's really going on.

If you're an independent in our field, take my survey at the link below.

In addition to getting a snapshot of the current situation, the survey will help us look at how 2009 is shaping up, and share strategies we independents are employing to survive/thrive.

I'm also asking whether independents might be interested in forming a group for mutual benefit.

PASS THIS ON TO ALL THE INDEPENDENTS YOU KNOW

PLEASE PASS THE SURVEY URL TO YOUR NETWORK.

Please let
people know about this so we get as wide an audience as possible.
Consider notifying people at both the center and periphery of your
social network so that we get a wider cross section of respondents.
Please also send notifications spread out over time so that we widen
our net as well. I will keep the survey open for two weeks or so (or
longer if responses are still rushing in).

Here is the link to send to others:

http://tinyurl.com/c6pjl9

1. Send to your independent colleagues.
2. Post in groups you belong to.
3. Send to your social-network friends.
4. Post on your blog, twitter, etc.
5. Send to your email newsletter.